It’s the time of year for saving money!
Recently I saw an article by Rafe Arnott in Audiostream that I found interesting that listed five top-shelf (and unilaterally expensive) DACs that Rafe felt that every audiophile should hear. They are all fine examples of the performance levels that have been obtained by audio designers with unlimited budgets. That’s cool, but what about the other end of the spectrum? I find it far more interesting to see what designers can do with limited budgets where they must pick and choose what can go into and around their wares. These kinds of products are vitally important because they raise the sonics of entry-level digital audiophilia for everyone.
I’m of the opinion that never before has entry-level digital been as good as it is today. And, I say this with complete seriousness, some of the current generation of under $400 DACs can sonically equal “the best” in a level-matched test in many systems. As I write this, I’m listening to a $150 DAC that I would rather be using than any DAC, regardless of price or technology, that is more than five years old.
So, what Are my own must-hear current-generation portable USB DACS?
Here we go…
Ifi xDSD – $399US MSRP
The xDSD is small and ribbed with an aluminum /magnesium chassis. Cigarette-pack sized at approximately 2 ¾” by 3 ¾” by 7/8″ and weighing127 grams (.28 lbs.0 It supports resolutions up to 768/24 PCM and 512 DSD via its Burr Brown DSD1793 DAC chip. There’s an analog rather than digital volume control, OV4627 ultra low noise FET input Op-Amp and W990VST digitally controlled stepped attenuator, and a built-in Lithium-polymer battery which produces 2200mAh for between six and eight hours of playing time. The IFI xDSD uses four small variable-colored LEDs on its front panel to indicate its current operating states and supports multiple input options including USB, S/PDIF Coaxial, Toslink, and Bluetooth. The xDSD had enough juice to drive difficult headphones to satisfying levels as well as sensitive ones with no hiss issues.
Grace Design Standard DAC – $150US MSRP
Although currently sold-out, the Grace Basic DAC will be back for a second round of sales soon. Just sign up for a notification via their page. I purchased mine from the first drop for $144 (the unbalanced earlier version went for $79). It is USB buss-powered and can handle PCM up to 384/32 and DSD up to 5.65MHZ. No MQA support. It is a basic DAC, meaning it has no volume control, but it does have both balanced and unbalanced analog outputs and also supports a S/PDIF digital input as well as USB (but USB or USB power adapter must be connected for power). No filter selection options or display, but the sound is seriously reference-quality.
HiDiz DH1000 – $299US MSRP
This jack-of-all trades device can serve as either an analog headphone amplifier or a USB DAC for both IOS or Android devices. It has a built-in battery and is touted as “the world’s first dual balanced amplifier.” With both balanced and unbalanced headphone outputs and the ability to be charged at the same time as it is playing, it boasts 122 dB SNR, 120 dB of channel separation, PCM support to 192/24 and DSD to 128x. No MQA support, but it even has its own App for playing music through your smartphone. Slightly smaller, but similar in shape to my iPhone SE, the DH-1000 is ideal for optimizing a phone-based audiophile’s audio experience.
Project PreBox S2 Digital – $399US MSRP
The Pre Box S2 Digital is a DAC, digital preamplifier, and a headphone amplifier with a full-sized ¼” headphone output based around an ESS9602 chip. It features three digital inputs; coaxial SPDIF, Toslink optical, and USB B. With an ES9038Q2M DAC chip, which is based on the ES9038PRO chip, the Pre Box S2 Digital can be powered either by a USB connection or by a beefier supplied 5-volt external power supply. It supports DSD up to DSD512 (DSD over PCM) and PCM up to 768/32, as well as MQA decoding. With proprietary clock circuitry, organic polymer capacitors, and thin-film mini-MELF resistors, the Pre Box S2 Digital may be budget-priced but is not limited in features or performance. I’ve been using it connected to Project’s Streambox (powered by the Streambox’s USB connection) as a complete streaming solution.
NuForce uDAC 5 – $127.99 US
This small USB-powered DAC not only supports USB (which supplies power) but also S/PDIF. It also has a volume knob and headphone output on its front faceplate as well as a pair of analog single-ended analog outputs on the back. With an ESS sabre hyperstream DAC chip, support for 384/24 PCM and 256 DSD, 112dB SNR, but no MQA, the uDac 5 boasts good specifications and a generous feature set. Ideally suited to mate with a desktop rather than a portable (that volume control in your pocket could be an issue) this little DAC offers well above average sonics at a scene-stealing low price.
Did you accidentally omit the AQ Dragonfly, or do you think that all of these sound better? I don’t have an educated opinion; I’m just asking.
Hello Jason, I have no personal experience with the latest Dragonfly, the Cobalt. I wanted to concentrate on components I had personal experience using.
Well, guess what. I don’t either. Only the Red that came before.
Having been a long time fan of cheap dacs – I’m still using my modded art di/o – and in agreement with your statement that good cheap dacs can go toe to toe with “the best”, I’m always keeping my eyes open for the good cheap ones. So, I’m always interested in articles like this one. (I was pleasantly surprised by a yulong d18 i picked up used for ~$250 shipped a couple years ago. )
But I’m wondering if you’ve come across the new Topping d50s; it retails for $250, and can typically be purchased for ~$200. I’ve heard some good things about it; both from end users, and a guy who has done extensive measurements of about 100 different dacs. (Check out the “audio science review” forum.)
Hello Dougie, I have not had any personal experience with the Topping. Perhaps someday…
steve, if you ever hear one, i’d love to hear your opinion about it.
Based on the text on these items…I see no reason to acquire any of them….If it was meant to persuade audiophiles…I think it missed.
Missed you. Too bad…
What was it you missed, Phil? We’re looking for a bunch of flowery language about the liquidity and pinpoint imaging?
phil, steve said:
“And, I say this with complete seriousness, some of the current generation of under $400 DACs can sonically equal “the best” in a level-matched test in many systems. As I write this, I’m listening to a $150 DAC that I would rather be using than any DAC, regardless of price or technology, that is more than five years old.”
what about that do you not understand? how did it miss?
Steven, thanks for this story. I am a complete newbie when it comes to DACs. Do you have a favorite budget DAC geared more for use mainly with a CD player?
Most CD players have a Toslink and S/PDIF digital outputs, so you need a DAC that has those input options. From this list both the Project and the NuForce (with a power supply via its USB connedction) will work…
Thanks for the reply. Have you had the opportunity to hear any of the Schiit DACs, particularly the Modi and Modi Multi-bit?
Schiit makes solid stuff. But no DSD or MQA capacity on purpose.
Sorry to ask this question but I am a newbie to this digital audio. If I listen to my music over my HT system where does this DAC fit in? I have Pandora, Spotify, etc. apps on my Roku. This uses HDMI to the AVR which plays the music. My AVR has a headphone jack if I wanted to use that for listening. Why do I need a DAC?
Your home theater system has a DAC built into it. You already HAVE a DAC…
steve, i know nothing about roku. would its hdmi signal be able to go to an outboard dac and then the dac’s outs go to one of the avr’s analog inputs? wouldn’t one of these dacs typically be better than an avr’s built-in dac? i have an internet tuner that has digital outs as well as analog outs – which means it has its own internal dac. but no way i’d ever listen to it that way; i use an outboard dac.
There are outboard DACS that accept HDMI. But whether the DACs in the external DAC are noticeably better sounding than the internal ones depends on multiple factors.
Thanks. Now if I could get an HD streaming service that offers my Pandora stations feature to show up on Roku. None of the ones I’ve tried offers the feature.
What about the official Pandora channel for Roku?
Sorry , I have no info on this App.
That was in response to jborchel – the way to get Pandora stations on Roku would be to use the official Pandora channel.
Pandora does not offer the HD (High Rez) quality stream that I would like. Those services are Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer, etc.
You missed the boat. All you need is the Khadas ToneBoard DAC at $99. Specs are within a whisper of Benchmark DAC. “The Khadas Tone Board is a high performance DAC and a bargain price. It is exceptionally well engineered and easily earns my highest recommendation!” https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-wesiontek-khadas-tone-board-dac.4823/ https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9af4fbfcb018af1d5529cd450173490fb5c303664f19efb979a7cf88397cb55e.jpg
There’s more than one boat in the ocean…
The electronic components/chips together with the SMD technology by which modern digital audio is assembled, got to a level that differences in sound are barely detectable by human hearing. The boutique digital electronics are not better than even the budget noname stuff. Boutique HI END exists only relying on marketing hype and users belief that insane priced equipment is HI END.
You are not including analog circuits? Good idea. While the digital sections of inexpensive DACs may be in some eyes, “perfect” the analog sections are not in the same league as more upscale DACs.
Any opinion re: AudioEngine D1?